The first Miss America had a bust that measured one inch less than Twiggy's, which was hardly an all-American statistic. But since that small beginning almost 50 years ago, the Atlantic City beauty contest has more than met the measure of Americana. Do you remember when Miss America of 1956, now Mrs. Kyle Rote, reverently told the press she always sang The Lord's Prayer in the bathtub? Or the Miss America who, in the ecstasy of her winning moments, quoted St. Matthew, Abraham Lincoln and Grantland Rice? Or the winner who ran off with her Atlantic City chauffeur the night she was crowned? Or the two Miss Americas who dated—and later denied they would wed—Joe DiMaggio?
Those were moments to appreciate, and last month in Atlantic City events only strengthened the feeling that the Miss America contest—with all of its small ironies—has become a national sporting event that is going to rank up there forever with the World Series, Harvard-Yale and the other supreme competitive rites of fall.
The annual pageant is America as she likes to see herself, hale and happy, by God, even if the constant smiles become painful. Wearing rosette ribbons like those awarded at livestock shows, the burnished girls are the pride of the grass roots. They have been Apple, Strawberry, Cherry, Cotton and Potato Princesses, Miss American Legion, Miss VFW, Miss Traffic Safety, cheerleaders, homecoming queens and majorettes. To become Miss America contestants, they have had to show beauty ("outside and inside," is the way the people put it in Atlantic City) and at least two minutes and 50 seconds of talent, that being the amount of performing tune allotted each entry. Bert Parks, the ebullient master of ceremonies at the pageant, describes Miss America as "a composite of positive wonders," and with her copyrighted rhinestone crown and her gold-washed trophy she unquestionably generates a flutter in the heartland of America. Children are named for her. She receives the keys to more than 200 cities and towns. She travels 200,000 miles in the year of her reign, offering her dignified smile to places like Tupelo, Lubbock, Fayetteville, Kankakee, Thief River Falls and Great Bend. For many, she epitomizes all that is meaningful—patriotism, church, family, devotion, discipline, respect for authority, success earned through clean living and hard effort. She is America the Beautiful. "We stand for the great American middle class, the nonvocal middle class, for normal, average, young American womanhood," says Albert Marks, a pageant official for 15 years. "We are for normalcy. We have no interest in minorities or causes. SDS has its thing. We have no thing. If that is a crime in today's society, so be it. Our youngsters are interested in plain American idealism."
Of course, the 400,000 at the Wood stock rock festival who assembled in an alfalfa held about the same time are not in tune with Mr. Marks and his ideas of youth, and so the Miss America Pageant offers an extra fillip to the 75 million who watch it each year on TV. It exemplifies, in its way, a division in the country, for those who do not cherish Miss America are regarding her—between Toni commercials, Oldsmobile ads and station breaks—as a ridiculously amusing, high-camp figure of dated views and purpose.
Whatever one's opinion, the Atlantic City show is an American tradition—part contest, part pageant, part sport It began in 1921 when the circulation managers of some Pennsylvania and New Jersey newspapers were looking for a gimmick to increase sales. They decided to promote a bathing-suit contest, the winner to be called Miss America. Girls representing eight cities came to Atlantic City for the judging, and the victorious 16-year-old with a 30-inch bust was Margaret Gorman of Washington. She received a gold mermaid trophy, which was reported to be worth $5,000. During the Depression she had it melted down and collected $50.
In those early days there were scandals. Broadway producers attempted to arrange for their chorus girls to win. There was a contestant who married a stockbroker, took him abroad and shot him. It was a lusty leg show, and the girls were the toast of Prohibition. Miss America's prize was an all-expense-paid trip to Hollywood and a screen test, and among those seeking the title (unsuccessfully) were Joan Blondell, Miss Dallas 1927, and Dorothy Lamour, Miss New Orleans 1931.
The pageant shut down during the Depression, and when it reopened in the mid-'30s the mood was more sober. The wife of the mayor, an elderly Quaker lady who was also the grande dame of Atlantic City society, agreed to help change the somewhat garish image of the contest by establishing a strict chaperon system for the contestants. The rules she laid down are virtually unchanged today. Girls may not talk to a man, even their father or brother, except in the presence of a chaperon. They may be interviewed by a member of the press only if a hostess is there to censor the conversation, a system that sometimes provokes amusing exchanges:
"I'm sorry I'm sweating so much," one of this year's contestants remarked to a reporter. "I've just finished practicing my dance routine."
"Sweat is not a proper word," her hostess chided.
"I'm sorry I'm perspiring," the girl said, trying to repair the wrong.